Pai Gow Poker table

How to Play Pai Gow Poker

Pai Gow Poker, also called Double Hand Poker, is a version of Pai Gow played with cards instead of Chinese dominoes, or pai gows.

While a fun game to play, understanding its fundamentals can be a bit tricky in the beginning. Take a look.

How to play Pai Gow Poker

Pai Gow Poker uses a standard deck of 52 cards plus one joker. A maximum of six players sit around the table along with the dealer.

The object of the game is quite simple: to beat the banker. The banker can be the dealer, another player at the table, or a player-dealer “team.”

To do so, you make two poker hands with the seven cards that are dealt:

  1. A five-card “high” hand (also known as the back hand/big hand)
  2. A two-card “low” hand (also known as the front hand/small hand)

Your high hand must beat your low hand. For example, if your low hand is a pair of fives, your high hand must be better than a pair of fives.

Once you set your hands, the dealer reveals them along with the banker’s hands. There are then 3 possible outcomes:

  1. The player wins both hands and wins their bet.
  2. The dealer wins both hands and the player loses their bet.
  3. The player wins one hand and the dealer wins the other, in which case the hand is a push and no money exchanges hands (except the commission–more on this later).

Ties go to the dealer in Pai Gow Poker. For example, if both you and the dealer have a low hand of A-K, the dealer wins that hand.

Pai Gow Poker

Photo credit: Alejandro Tamayo (San Diego Union-Tribune)

Dealing the game

Pai Gow Poker has an interesting deal method. After the cards are shuffled, the dealer places them into seven face-down piles comprised of seven cards—one for each player and the dealer—with four unused extra cards that are placed in the discard pile, or muck.

Fun fact: Before the advent of card shufflers, the dealer dealt the cards into the piles and shaped them like a dragon with a head, body, and tail.

Each seat is numbered one to seven beginning with whoever the banker is. A number is randomly chosen to decide who gets dealt cards first, and the dealer hands out the cards in a counter-clockwise direction. 

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Setting your Pai Gow hand

For the two-card hand, its only possible to make pairs and high cards. For the five-card hand, standard poker hand rankings apply. It is important that the five-card hand outranks the two-card hand. For example, if the two-card hand consists of a pair of aces, the five-card hand must be better than two-pair.

Pai Gow Poker hands

The joker can be used only to complete a flush or straight. If neither of these situations apply, the joker must be an ace. (Some casinos have different rules regarding the joker, but this is by far the most common.)

If a player cannot make a pair or better with their cards—for example, if you were dealt Q-9-7-6-5-3-2–this is called a pai gow, or non-hand.

Pai Gow Showdown

Once players have set their hands, they place the two-card hand in front and the five-card hand in back. As such, the five card-hand is referred to as the “bottom,” “high,” “behind,” or “big” hand while the two-card hand is oftentimes called “on top,” “small,” “minor,” “in front,” or “low.”

Pai Gow Poker hand set

Photo credit: Alejandro Tamayo (San Diego Union-Tribune)

If a hand is set incorrectly—such as having the two-hand hand outranking the five-card hand—then the hand is fouled and is either reset according to house rules or forfeited, depending on the casino.

If the casino/dealer is the banker, then the cards must be set according to house rules. However, if a player is the banker for a particular hand, that player is free to set their hand however they choose. If a player co-banks with the dealer, the player must set their hand the according to house rules.

Commission

In most cases, the casino takes a commission out of the player’s winnings—typically 5%. Other casinos charge a flat fee per hand depending on the amount bet.

Editor’s note: More commission is better, I guess.

Pai Gow Poker side bets

Casinos are increasingly adopting Pai Gow Poker variants which are characterized by side bets that can increase a player’s winnings. These side bets neither add to nor detract from the bet for the hand itself.

Instead, the player is betting extra on whether they get three-of-a-kind, a full house, four-of-a-kind, a straight flush, or a royal flush. Of course, the higher the hand, the higher the bonus payout.

Among the most common—and popular—are:

  • Fortune Pai Gow—Allows players to make a side bet on trips or better
  • Pai Gow Mania—Allows players to make two side bets
  • Emperor’s Challenge—Allows players to make a side bet on a pai gow
  • Progressive Fortune Pai Gow—Allows players to place side bets with a combined seven-card straight flush winning the jackpot.

Some casinos have envy bonuses as well. For these, players wager an amount that another player at the table will hit a premium hand.

Like any bet offered by a casino, Pai Gow side bets have a negative expectation–much more negative than the game of Pai Gow alone. Avoid them unless you feel like gambling even more than you already are.

Pai Gow Poker payouts

Pai Gow Poker strategy

Success in Pai Gow Poker is largely dependent on how the cards are dealt as there are no betting rounds. Granted some skill is necessary in setting one’s hand to provide the best chance of beating the dealer. Players are oftentimes faced with hands that can be set multiple ways which can have very different outcomes.

For example, if dealt K, K, Q, J, 10, 9, 9, a player has the option of setting his/her hand like:

  • K, 9/K, Q, J, 10, 9 (mediocre top hand, very strong bottom hand)
  • Q, J/K, K, 9, 9, 10 (mediocre top hand, strong bottom hand)
  • 9, 9/K, K, Q, J, 10 (strong top hand, fairly strong bottom hand)

Thus, if a player wants to virtually guarantee a push, the top option would likely be the best; however, if they are trying to win, perhaps the bottom option would be best. In these close spots, it boils down to personal preference and gut feeling. Unless, as mentioned, that player is co-banking with the dealer.

If you’re ever confused about how to set your hand, ask the dealer. Most casinos allow them to help you, and they will be happy to do it.

Pai Gow Poker is another poker variant that has enjoyed considerable popularity over the years and is actually quite fun to play.

Have you played Pai Gow Poker? Please share your thoughts, comments, and experiences below.

Until next time.

Note: Ready to move beyond Pai Gow Poker to Texas Hold’Em? With our free preflop charts, you can be playing like the pros in no time. Get yours here.
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Natalie Faulk is a Las Vegas-based freelance writer/blogger and the author of several books. She is an avid low-stakes (for now) poker player and huge Vegas Golden Knights fan.

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